By David Reynolds
It seems apparent that the average person, if asked, would uphold history as true and myth as simply false. This, however, is an unfortunate oversimplification of the matter at hand. For instance, when one questions the truth in history and myth, what is in doubt – the facts concerning the event or the motivations of those involved which cause the event? Perhaps, what really comes into question is the significance of the values at play in a particular event. Here, I briefly examine how truth operates in both history and myth with recourse to both Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche. Through this examination it is apparent that factual truth is of minor significance in understanding a culture’s values and, furthermore, that the mythic narrative offers a stronger expression of a culture’s values than the historical narrative.
In order to interrogate the value of truth in history and myth, first one must establish the context within which these terms are employed. History is traditionally taken either as the accumulation of past events or the study of past events. Here, a distinction is helpful, and throughout this essay, history shall denote the study of past events, while the actual reality of the past will be simply termed the past or past events. On the other hand, myth is commonly taken to mean simply falsehood. Such is the case in countless medical awareness pamphlets denouncing the myths of birth control, sexually transmitted diseases, and narcotics. However, myth also refers to narrative tales which “function to express social values, norms of behaviour, and/or the consequences of deviating from them” (Harris & Platzner 13). Although many ancient myths are set in an even more remote past, this is not necessary for a narrative to function as a significant myth, hence the tales of the Christian New Testament are myths and so superhero tales of the past hundred years could be seen as myths, as well. The most significant difference between historical narratives relating past events and mythical narratives is that history is held to a high standard of factual truth, while myth requires little to no foundation in facts.
Having established the context in which history and myth will be employed, truth must now come into question. In interrogating the meaning of truth, belief is inexorably caught up in the issue. I propose that there are varying contexts in which truth is used, and, typically, this is the source of much confusion concerning truth. Firstly, assuming that there is a mind-independent, external world which constitutes reality, truth can denote what is actual in the world. The accumulation of all facts of truth in this context would only be accessible to an omniscient being. For the purpose of this essay, this form of truth shall be termed absolute truth. One could argue that any other set of beliefs are true if and only if they correspond to the absolute truth. However, verifying one’s beliefs against the absolute truth is a task which is inaccessible to human perception. Secondly, truth can be taken from the perspective of the individual. In this sense, truth and belief tend to blend together. Schopenhauer argues that truth is only guaranteed in a form of solipsism. He holds that “only the events of our inner life, in so far as they concern the will, have true reality and are actual occurrences, since the will alone is the thing in-itself” (Schopenhauer 143). However, this position comes across as too extreme to have any practicality at all. Instead, I argue that what appears to a person through experience holds truth insofar as those experiential beliefs intersect and correspond to the absolute truth. In other words, a person’s beliefs about their experiences are true when those beliefs correspond to reality, or absolute truth. Here, truth takes on a personal role and it is bound up with belief. Thirdly, this personal form of truth can be expanded from an individual level to reflect a social dynamic. In this case, the common belief of the group is taken to be true on the basis of consensus, authority, or sheer power. This is the meaning of truth which is assumed when people speak of facts. Since people cannot access the absolute truth, we are forced to defer knowledge of facts to authorities on the subject. This is the attitude that Schopenhauer expresses when he claims that “what history relates is… the long, heavy, and confused dream of mankind” (Schopenhauer 143). When Nietzsche shares his strong sense of cynicism towards truth (Nietzsche 150-151), it appears that it must be this public form of truth that he condemns, as well. Hence, public belief determines truth in a similar manner as personal belief, except that public belief has a greater force since it is believed by many to be true, regardless of its corresponding to any fact in absolute truth.
When history and myth are compared under the light of these three interpretations of truth, it is apparent that determining factual histories is much more a pipedream than analyzing values. With regards to determining the value of truth in history and myth, only the third of these interpretations of truth is significant. Firstly, any attempt to depict an exhaustive account of absolute history would be futile. No historian is omniscient nor devoid of bias; thus, an exhaustive and objective account of the past is not forthcoming. Secondly, an individual’s personal experience cannot lend itself to provide an account of history outside of that individual’s experience. Thus, personal truth is limited greatly by the experiences of the individual. Furthermore, a person’s testimony of past events need not be sincere nor need it be taken as true by a larger social group. Hence, it is the third interpretation of truth which concerns both history and myth. Nietzsche phrases it as follows, “Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions” (Nietzsche 151). Hugh Rayment-Pickard explains in Philosophies of History that Nietzsche is primarily concerned with the values expressed through histories and myths because he takes facts to be value judgements (Rayment-Pickard 139). Since it is the group’s collective beliefs which determine what is taken to be true in a culture, then both history and myth share a strong similarity in that they are both propagated by a culture’s values.
Considering Nietzsche’s arguments, determining the factual truth in history and myth is less important than understanding the cultural values that they express. Rayment-Pickard claims that Nietzsche recognized three distinct styles of historical writing: Monumental, which celebrates great persons and achievements; Antiquarian, which focuses on uncovering facts and artefacts of the past; and Critical, which provides analyses of past events (Rayment-Pickard 137). However, Rayment-Pickard notes that, for Nietzsche, the most important aspect for each of these historians is that they write histories that must serve life (Rayment-Pickard 137). As such, Nietzsche asserts that the analysis of values is what is most significant in history. Accordingly, it comes as no surprise then that Nietzsche would uphold myth as more important than history or the description of factual past events, since myths are narratives tailored to express social values. Furthermore, Nietzsche holds myth as the “concentrated image of the world” or as “an abbreviation for phenomena” (Nietzsche 150). He also writes that “the state itself has no unwritten laws more powerful than the mythical foundation that guarantees… its growth out of mythical representations” (Nietzsche 150). Nietzsche places the most significance in studying the past and myth with analyzing the values represented in those narratives. As such, in an interrogation of a culture’s values, mythic narratives are a greater resource to study than historical narratives.
Following from this examination of the values and truth in history and myth, it would seem that the common assumption is misguided in asserting that since history is more factual than myth and, therefore, it is more worthwhile. Discerning factual truth in history is no easy task if one hopes to assert that truth is more than popular, public belief. In light of this issue, Nietzsche proposes that scholars focus their attention towards the values expressed in history and, also, myth. As such, scholarly analysis should aim to provide insight on a culture’s values, rather than disputing or attempting to uncover facts.
Harris, Stephen L. & Platzner, Gloria. Classical Mythology: Images & Insights 4th Ed.
Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Myth is Higher than History.” Philosophies of History: From
Enlightenment to Postmodernity. Eds. Robert M. Burns & Hugh Rayment-
Pickard. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 150.
—–. “On Truth.” Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Postmodernity. Eds.
Robert M. Burns & Hugh Rayment-Pickard. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
Rayment-Pickard, Hugh. “Suprahistory.” Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment
to Postmodernity. Eds. Robert M. Burns & Hugh Rayment-Pickard. Oxford:
Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 131-140.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. “The Long, Heavy and Confused Dream of Mankind.”
Philosophies of History: From Enlightenment to Postmodernity. Eds. Robert M.
Burns & Hugh Rayment-Pickard. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 142-143.